‘ We’ve never asked our agency to not do something because of the cost of it’: Bank of America’s Lou Paskalis on brand safety

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Lou Paskalis is one of the marketing industry’s most outspoken executives. The Bank of America svp and enterprise media executive is also chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association and an IAB staff member. We asked him to take a look back at the realities of marketing in 2018.

If there’s a phrase I’d pick for the year, it’d be brand purpose. Are you sick of it?
No! I’m a brand marketer by DNA. For me, I’m thrilled that everyone is talking about purpose. At Bank of America, we have a deeply rooted set of purposes. We’ve been walking the walk, but we are reluctant to talk the talk. It’s the fear of self-aggrandizement. What’s changed is we’re competing for attention. We need to create messages people will need to respond and relate to. We have tomes of stories to tell. There’s now a requirement to tell those stories. There are companies like ours who have done it for years and others who will scramble to don that jacket. Customers will suss out the difference. But, brand marketing conversation comes front and center. The other piece is context. We’re not running an ad in primetime saying we’re great. There are events happening every day. If we have stories ready to go, that demonstrate us walking the walk. We can publish into those events.

I believe that was called real-time marketing at a time.
Yes, it was. I think that took on a patina of performance. But we see it as an opportunity to make a connection with emotional things. Like OK, our green bonds are helping make the environment better.

It’s been quite a year across platforms when it comes to exposing serious issues with measurement, flaws in their systems, and fraud. What are you going to do about it?
I came to this industry with a job having two functions: go where the audience is and measure everything. For the first two-plus decades of my career, it was pretty easy to do. For the first time in my career, I can’t measure the things I need to measure. I’ve got platforms grading their own homework. Brand safety issues and accountability issues. They have different impacts on different platforms. I’m not calling out individuals yet but we’re coming to a point where we need to. All the mathematical errors have benefited how the platforms work and not the marketers work. I’m called to task where I’m asked if investments are reaching who they should be. So OK, we need MRC accreditation and I need more than that. I need a level playing field than I’ve had with all media.

But are you going to pull spend?
This is an industry-wide hygiene issue. The signals we need to make our messages more relevant are uniquely in those walled gardens. We want to join the conversations there. The algorithm gets smarter every day. Advertisers are not the beneficiaries of that. I think you’re starting to hear the industry sing the same hymn on that. 90 percent of Alphabet’s revenue comes from advertisers. We want to do business with those platforms, but how do we do in a clean way that we feel good about?

Because pulling money isn’t really an option.
It’s not a black and white option. From a principle standpoint, due to brand safety issues, we’ve had to pause from time to time. In the case of one platform, we’re still on red. When principles are clear and well established, there’s no question we can and will. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a search player I can’t buy around. I couldn’t pull my spend unless the rest of my competitors did. It would also be a disservice to a customer that I wouldn’t be there in search results. We agonize about it on a daily basis. We used to give it a thought twice a year. But it’s become front and center of every decision we made. It doesn’t bode well for long-term partnership and co-development because everything is case by case and next incident could very well affect what we do.

In some ways, brand money is propping up a lot of really bad stuff in the industry. And more people are paying attention.
I’m excited about that. This should have always been a clean, well-lit environment. A covenant was entered into between the advertiser and the consumer. Programmatic is the single worst thing that ever happened to the ad industry and also the salvation moving forward. We turned it into this lowest common denominator bottom feeder. We just want to find shoe intenders, context be damned. I don’t care if they were shoe intenders six months ago. But in fact, the interest level will raise the bar for what customers expect.

OK, but all of this: Privacy, raising the bar, brand safety. It doesn’t come cheap.
Every marketer is in a slightly different place. We’ve never asked our agency to not do something because of the cost of it. In banking, we’ve always been focused on brand safety. We recently announced someone entirely focused on it. Let’s talk about cost. We were very sensitive about digital ad fraud and we set up a three-tier system to catch it. And all of it, it’s revenue positive. We can say all the fraud that we mitigate is more than paying for the additional diligence. On a pure mathematics level, it also raises the bar on fraudsters. It helps to constrict their access to dollars. Beyond that though, think about reputation. One or two screenshots of a bad brand adjacency have a cost that is astronomical and incalculable. Due diligence to us is on insurance models. Even if it wasn’t revenue positive — which it is by the way — it would still be a worthwhile investment. We’re also having conversations today around platform risk. Are there certain platforms that have gotten to a place reputationally that is a problem?